An amateur genealogist’s search for family stories leads him to McGill, where his great-uncle was one of two Black members of the Medicine Class of 1908 and a possible cousin, a BA’23, with his own mark on Quebec history.
The pages of the 1908 edition of the Old McGill yearbook describe the days of studying in the Anatomy Lecture Room, a new histology course and the decision to do away with the annual “rush” initiation of freshmen. The pages, archived and digitized in recent years by McGill Library, have found a new audience in Charles Buford Sexton.
From his home in Atlanta, Georgia, the amateur genealogist is seeking new information about his great-uncle, Dr. Cecil Archippus Harry (MDCM 1908). Born and raised in Jamaica, then called the British West Indies, Harry was one of two Black students in the Medicine Class of 1908.
At one time the Harry family had thought it could trace its history back to a young couple, Robert and Charlotte, who escaped from slave owners and joined the Maroons. (The Maroons were communities of Africans that had revolted against Spanish slave owners and later fought British colonizers for the freedom of Africans and those native to present-day Jamaica. Robert and Charlotte would have likely fled slavery around the time when James McGill was a merchant of goods produced with slave labour in the West Indies and his household owned at least five enslaved Black and Indigenous people.) However, this theory has been debunked. It is now thought that the family may trace its history to Charity Harry and Thomas Hibbert, a merchant and sugar planter. Harry, a free woman of African and European ancestry, was housekeeper to Hibbert.
What Sexton can say with more certainty is that Thomas Theophilus Harry, a shoemaker and an accused instigator of the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865, was Cecil’s grandfather: “He’s what we would call a civil rights leader today.”
Leading up to the protest in Morant Bay, Thomas delivered a speech criticizing the lack of employment opportunities for Black people in stores. He also spoke about the plight of tailors and seamstresses—many of whom were Black and trying to compete with ready-made clothing, as well as the lack of education available for Black children. Thomas was arrested and jailed for seditious language, but was released and would become one of the first Black men in Jamaica to hold political office when he was elected to Kingston City Council in 1885.
Thomas’s son and Cecil’s father, Archippus Nathan Philip (pictured below), was the first doctor of the Harry family. He attended Wolmer’s private school in Kingston and graduated with a medical degree from Bishop’s College in 1894 alongside celebrated pathologist Dr. Maude Abbott (BA 1890, MDCM honoris causa 1910), who had been denied entry into McGill’s all-male program. Bishop’s medical faculty later amalgamated with McGill’s. From Montreal, Archippus Sr. traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to obtain his triple qualification, a diploma in obstetrics and a certificate in gynecology.
“Cecil’s father Archippus was known as being very Victorian, because he always wore his top hat, waist coat and striped pants wherever he went on house calls,” says Sexton, who says that the efforts to track down such details have been the result of a collective effort. “He served the poor,” and also spoke out against incest, Sexton adds. In 1908, Archippus Sr. was unable to save a woman who was brought to him while hemorrhaging after an unsafe abortion. He was tried for her murder but ultimately acquitted.
Cecil Archippus, born in Gayle, Jamaica, in 1884, followed in his father’s footsteps in reverse, dropping out of medical school in Edinburgh before graduating from McGill’s MDCM program in 1908 (yearbook picture below). Like his father, he was one of two students from Jamaica in his class. Archippus Sr.’s class consisted of ten graduates of which one-fifth were Jamaican; meanwhile, among Cecil’s class of nearly 90 students, the number of graduates from the West Indies remained unchanged, a possible indicator of the growing restrictions on Black students at Canadian universities.
Unlike his father, who returned to Kingston to practice, Cecil is believed to have left Canada for the United States with his young family shortly after he obtained his degree. It is unclear whether he ever practiced medicine, and discriminatory policies may have played a role in his decision to leave. In 1911, an order-in-council signed by Sir Wilfrid Laurier would have banned Black immigrants from Canada had it been enacted. In 1916, medical students petitioned McGill’s Board of Governors to remove quotas for Black students and exclusionary policies by the university-affiliated Montreal Maternity Hospital. Black students were told to complete their clinical work in the United States if they were rejected from local hospitals.
What is known is that many of Archippus Sr.’s descendants became physicians, including Cecil’s son, Philip Emile Reber Harry, who studied medicine in the US. Despite advances in genealogy and ancestry databases, not all of the Harry family is easily located on the family tree. One of Cecil’s cousins, for example, is believed to be Frank Randolph MacPherson (BA’23), another McGillian. MacPherson was a chemical engineer in Quebec’s logging industry and a dear friend of Félix Leclerc, who composed a song in his name in 1948. The unlikely friendship was the subject of artist Martine Chartrand and later a documentary called “Finding MacPherson.”
Asked about his and his relatives’ commitment to learning more about the Harry family, Sexton says: “I try to leave no stone unturned, because you never know what you might find.”
(Based on Harry family lore and research. Please note that corrections have been made to an earlier version of this story to reflect the family’s evolving understanding of its history.)
Pictured, top: The Harry family connection to McGill may not have ended with Dr. Cecil Archippus. Chemical engineer Frank Randolph MacPherson (BA’23) (standing third from right), for whom Félix Leclerc composed a song in 1948, is thought to have been a cousin of Cecil’s, according to Harry family historian, Charles Buford Sexton.